Pets and Pain: How Animals Can Affect Your Health
As many people known, pets can bring joy, excitement and energy into a home. What’s less well-known is that pets may also improve your physical and mental health – and help to improve pain levels in the process.
Obviously exercise is a key component to healthful living (and pain relief), and pets – especially dogs – are a great way to help you get out of the house and start exercising regularly. Dog owners are actually 54% more likely than non-dog owners to get their daily recommended level of physical activity. Going on walks, throwing the ball around and going to the park can not only serve to make your furry friend happy, but also loosen up your muscles, lubricate your joints and help you shed a few extra pounds, which can all serve to lessen pain levels.
Pets have also been shown to have various other physical benefits. Owning a pet has been associated with lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as a lower likelihood of obesity.
The common adage “man’s best friend” belies an underlying fact about animals: They are a great means of social support. For more than half of pet owners, pets are considered as much a member of the family as a spouse or child. In fact, 35% of married or cohabitating people say their pet is a better listener than their spouse. Plus, pets can help you meet other like-minded individuals, whether that’s on a walk, during a training class or at a doggy daycare.
According to APM behavioral health specialist Mary Papandria, surrounding yourself with supportive individuals – or pets – can help you stay positive when pain is at its worst. Without adequate social support, she says, individuals can often experience a worsened perception of pain, increased disability and lessened benefits from treatment.
Numerous studies have shown that having adequate social support can lead to better psychological and physiological health. Greater social support can improve heart and immune system health – in addition to self-esteem – while poor social support has been found to correlate to increased mortality rates.
One of the main ways pets can help those in pain is through boosting their overall mood. Those experiencing chronic pain often deal with abnormally high levels of anxiety and depression, but pets can help combat that. For one, the social support that pets lend has been shown to help people feel more relaxed and less stressed. Pet owners also tend to experience a higher sense of well-being.  This may be due, in part, to the responsibility of owning a pet. Researchers have suggested that taking care of an animal may give people a sense of purpose. This may even correlate to better functional ability; in older populations, those with a dog or cat have been shown to better perform daily activities, like climbing the stairs or bending and kneeling.
Pets also offer a source of distraction, which is often important for pain sufferers when pain is particularly bad.
Pets and Traditional Care
For those who are able to adequately take care of a pet, they can be an enriching – and sometimes pain-relieving – addition to your life. Like other kinds of social support, it’s possible that owning a pet can help people respond better to various types of treatments. Plus, an effective treatment plan can help relieve pain and restore function, meaning you can spend more time with your furry friend. Now that sounds like a positive cycle.